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CJ Fair’s Stupendous Start

Today’s post is one I’ve been meaning to get around to for a little while. Unfortunately, since that time some things have (allegedly) gone down surrounding Fab Melo, and as much as I would have liked to turn the other way, those happenings command our attention as fans. While we can endlessly debate what should happen if and when Fab Melo’s status as a member of the team is dramatically changed, Jim Boeheim’s approach concerning these matters renders such conversations useless until the judicial systems have their say. You can never say never, but it looks like there won’t be any significant developments between today and Melo’s court date next Tuesday. With that in mind, today is a great opportunity to get back to the positive, and resume talking about what makes next season so promising.

One of the main reasons why writers are citing next season’s team as a top five squad is the blend of experienced players with incoming high-ceiling youth. However, there’s one player who doesn’t quite fit either of those descriptors. I’m talking of course about CJ Fair. Watching his freshman campaign was one of the most enjoyable parts of last season, right after seeing Rick Jackson roll through opponents on a regular basis. While the season had highlights, there was also no shortage of blemishes. The season conference schedule was tumultuous and streaky, Melo was a massive disappointment, Kris Joseph didn’t make the leap that I was hoping he would, Brandon Triche started to turn the proverbial corner about four times, only to spin out, and I gnawed my fingernails to their roots watching Scoop Jardine with the ball in his hands late in close games*. Still, next season’s roster will have an interesting mix of players who have been through the meat grinder and younger players brimming with upside as they descend on Syracuse. Not to be forgotten, though, are players like Fair, who are caught in between.

*I enjoy unpredictable theatrics when I’m at the movies, but in a Big East point guard, it’s not such a desirable trait.

Melo was the crown jewel of the recruiting class, with Dion Waiters a step behind in the high school hype machine, having committed to Syracuse before he even played a game at the varsity level. Fair and Baye Moussa Keita weren’t afterthoughts, but they didn’t figure to make impacts as soon as they did. As we know, Keita flourished early, but things started moving a little too quickly for him once the calendar turned and a hand problem that couldn’t be fully addressed until after the season also held him back. Fair followed an opposite path, as he was sidelined earlier in the season and broke out later on, but it should be noted that both players benefited from opportunities made available due to starters’ various struggles. The small forward began his season modestly, averaging just five points per game in 11 non-conference games, playing just under 14 minutes per contest, but a turning point came in mid-January, when the team traveled to Pittsburgh.

After Kris Joseph was injured, Fair had to answer the bell and produce from the wing spot on the road against a very good Pitt team. SU’s struggles against the Panthers are out in the open, but that didn’t matter to the freshman, as he poured in 16 points and nine rebounds. If you recall, Syracuse fell in a 19-0 hole early only to claw all the way back. While the Orange became gassed and lost, I came away that night very impressed and confident in Fair’s future. What he did was with very little precedent in recent seasons. In the last ten years, only two freshmen forwards have scored 16 or more points against the Panthers: Donte’ Greene and CJ Fair. No one else from that stretch can claim that feat; not Hakim Warrick, not Paul Harris, not Arinze Onuaku and not Rick Jackson. Not even Carmelo Anthony. Some of that is a testament to how the Orange have consistently struggled against the Panthers through the years, and some of it is due to the offense relying on scoring guards like Gerry McNamara, Eric Devendorf and Jonny Flynn over frontcourt play (though the last few years have seen a transition to bigger production out of the forward and center spots), but it’s still very impressive.

Boeheim realized the value that Fair could provide, and in conference play, he was on the court much more often (21 minutes per game) than the 14 minutes per game in the non-con set. In a six-game stretch between February 5 and February 21, Fair averaged 32 minutes per game, and was productive in tallying nearly ten points per game to go with six rebounds. That stretch includes a February 21 game against Villanova with zero rebounds, where his afternoon ended earlier than expected after he tweaked his ankle stepping on Antonio Pena’s foot.

Fair isn’t a finished product, but how many freshmen are? To this day, I remain unconvinced that he’s actually 6’8, and while his leaping ability helps to dissuade that notion, I’m curious to see how much bulk he adds to his frame, to which he can add as much as 20 or 25 pounds over time. It’s a stretch to imagine him putting on that much size in one summer, but added strength will make him an even more dangerous threat when you consider his athleticism. Watching him, I’ve also noticed that Fair does an outstanding job of defending without fouling, and considering his tendency to drive on offense, it’s amazing how he turned the ball over so sparingly.

Bearing in mind how production from the low post is a major question at this point, I’m intrigued by the idea of a small lineup consisting of Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche, Kris Joseph, CJ Fair and one of the several unproven centers. This lineup would definitely leave the back of the zone vulnerable, but I feel that Fair’s production on offense, which should improve from about 14 points per forty minutes last season, would more than compensate for his lack of height on defense. By no means do I think this should be the starting lineup on the first game of the season, because Rakeem Christmas’ potential is exciting even if he has a long ways to go on offense, and I respect the energy that Keita injects into the game.

Pragmatically, Boeheim will willingly get his hand burned on the stove a few times before learning to keep it away, because that’s just how things go in his system. Ultimately,  though, Fair has earned the opportunity to show what he can do in an increased role, even if it’s still off the bench. While it poses a conundrum in how to delegate time between Joseph and Fair, it’s an important one that the coaching staff will have to solve going into next season.

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